SailorsAllen Law

Get off My Lawn!

On November 21, 2016, the Minnesota Court of Appeals collectively told the police to “get off their damn lawn!”  They said it more artfully than that of course by talking about curtilage.  The fact of the case are as follows:

On October 22, 2011, an individual who wanted to be only known by his initials, B.W.F. called to report that he had found his own lost camper.  His camper had been stolen in July of that same year.   A police officer met BWF at a residential property in Maplewood.  The estate had two driveways.  Driveway number 1, or D1 was partial asphalt and lead to the garage.  Driveway number 2, or D2 was dirt and allowed cars to traverse it if they were seeking a backdoor entrance to the garage or house.   The officer parked his squad in D2 and walked towards the camper.   Prior to BWF and the officer walking on the driveway, BWF told the officer that the camper had unique bolts.   Upon a closer inspection of the camper,  unique bolts were visible.   They also noticed that the license plate had been removed and the VIN matched BWF’s VIN.  The officer went into the camper and located some personal property that belonged to BWF inside.   They heard a noise from the garage and the homeowner, Mr. Chute came out.   Mr. Chute said he was storing the camper for a friend.   (This is said in 95% of receiving stolen property cases).

Quick lesson here, when you friend shows up with a camper and asks to store it in one of your two driveways ask to see the title first.  Don’t be a Chute.

Mr. Chute consented to a search of his garage and house and the officer found personal property from the camper in both locations.  Mr. Chute was charged with receiving stolen property.  Mr. Chute contested the search.

Mr. Chute’s nonfriend blaming argument was that the officers  and BWF were on his curtilage without a warrant.  The State of Minnesota disagreed.

This district court found that under the plain-view doctrine the officer was able to lawfully view the camper.  Under the plain-view doctrine, police may seize an object that they believe to be the fruit or instrumentality of a crime without a warrant if (1) the object’s incriminating nature is immediately apparent; (2) the police are legitimately in the position from which they view the object, and (3) the police have a lawful right of access to the object. State v. Milton, 821 N.W.2d 789, 790 (Minn. 2012).

So the district court said the incriminating nature of the unique bolts was immediately apparent, the only question is: was the officer (and BWF) legitimately in the position from which they viewed those bolts?

“Although the Fourth Amendment refers only to ‘persons, houses, papers and effects,’ courts generally have held that it applies also to the ‘curtilage.’” State v. Crea, 305 Minn. 342, 345, 233 N.W.2d 736, 739 (Minn. 1975). The curtilage is an area immediately and intimately connected to the home, such that a resident has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it. Florida v. Jardines, 133 S. Ct. 1409, 1414-15 (2013); Milton, 821 N.W.2d at 799; Garza v. State, 632 N.W.2d 633, 639 (Minn. 2001).  The Court of Appeals ruled that by walking on Mr. Chute’s driveway the officer and BWF were on his curtilage.   Crea says that the police cannot come on the curtilage without a warrant.   But here is where it gets confusing and possibly arbitrary.

The police can come onto someone’s curtilage if they have a legitimate purpose to be there. The impliedly-open exception permits police to “walk on the sidewalk and onto the porch of a house and knock on the door if they are conducting an investigation and want to question the owner.” Crea at 739. “[I]n such a situation the police are free to keep their eyes open and use their other senses.” Id.  However, in light of the SCOTUS’s decision in Jardines, the Supreme Court explained that the legitimacy of an officer’s entry into the curtilage is determined by considering the scope of the implied license that homeowners extend to visitors. Jardines, 133 S. Ct. at 1415-17.  Like private citizens, an officer without a warrant has an implied license to enter the curtilage for the purpose of knocking on the home’s door. Id. at 1415-16. However, police do not have a license to enter the curtilage where “their behavior objectively reveals a purpose to conduct a search.” Id. at 1417. If the police enter the curtilage for the purpose of conducting a warrantless search, that search violates the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 1413, 1417-18.

That was what happened here.  The police and BWF were there to search.  Search for unique bolts.   If they would have walked up to the door to talk to Mr. Chute and happened to notice the bolts the case would have likely had a different result.  So perhaps in addition to BWF, they should be followed some girl scouts to the front door.   Their legitimate purpose would have been to sell a crap load of Tag-a-longs and if they happened to notice unique bolts on during the sale, then too bad Mr. Chute.   Here, the officer parked the squad car on the dirt driveway and instead of walking toward the front door, they looked at unique bolts.  Additionally, they found they looked for the VIN number and went into the camper and found a personal item of BWF.  One can only hope that item was a monogrammed shirt with the initials “B.W.F” on it.  The officer heard Mr. Chute in the garage after he determined it was stolen.   Because the officer and BWF entered the property to conduct a warrantless search, the search gets thrown out and the evidence gets suppressed.

Moral of the story don’t come a knock’ if this camper is rockin’.   Go to the door first.  Then find your bolts.